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Colorado's governor treated COVID differently than many Democrats. It may pay off


For months, Colorado Governor Jared Polis has taken a different approach to COVID than many of his Democratic counterparts. Last July, Polis canceled Colorado's state of emergency. Then, as omicron surged, he said officials should not tell people what to wear and refused to reinstate statewide mask mandates.

JARED POLIS: We kind of really tried to focus on that lived experience that people have first and foremost. And yes, you know, visiting Grandma or not, here's your risk parameters. Here's how you make the decision, you know? But obviously, the answer was never to say no, you can't be with your loved ones in any way. So as we look for the future, I think it's important to take into account in addition to people's physical health, in addition to people's economic well-being, people's happiness.

CHANG: Now Polis' approach seems to be paying off. He's running for reelection, and he's pretty popular in his state, and it's raised questions about the firmer measures that other state officials have taken during this pandemic. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith asked Polis about that earlier this week.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Do you think that Democrats underemphasized or made a mistake by not pushing toward more normalcy more quickly?

POLIS: Well, there was no playbook for this. And I don't think there's anything that, like, Democrats or Republicans did. I think there's just a lot of individual decisions that mayors made, that governors made; some are Democrat, some are Republican. I mean, what you really saw is 50 different responses across all 50 states.

CHANG: Tamara Keith and NPR's senior political editor Domenico Montanaro broke down the implications of Polis' decisions on NPR's Politics Podcast.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: He's been a really interesting governor when it comes to how he's dealt with COVID because we've seen a real split, this blue-red divide across the country about wearing masks, not wearing masks. It's become something of a virtue on either side of things. And we've seen Polis be one of the first Democratic governors to sort of crossover and say that it was time to sort of end indoor mask mandates.

KEITH: He lifted the state's statewide mask mandate indoors back in July of 2021 for everything - grocery stores, schools. Now, unlike some Republican governors, he did not ban mask mandates. So places like Boulder, where he lives, it's more liberal, they've had a mask mandate in place until very recently. But taking off that mask mandate, not bringing it back through the delta and omicron waves, that put him out of step with a lot of Democratic governors around the country.

He was way ahead of basically the rest of Democratic states. He was way ahead of the CDC guidance, which only just recently relaxed on masking. And so when I interviewed him, I asked him whether it felt risky when he made that decision.

POLIS: I mean, I never doubted that it was the right thing. I mean, we have some neighboring states that required masks, and they had as much COVID, if not more than we did, in deaths and hospitalizations. Obviously, there are some people that wanted everybody to, you know, continue to wear masks and so forth.

But, you know, the burden on an elected leaders to tell people kind of what to wear or do is very high. I mean, you need to convince me as governor that this will do something. We're not just going to, you know, just wear masks for the heck of it. So unless we're convinced that this requirement is necessary to save our hospital capacity, which it obviously was before the vaccine existed, then why would we do it? So I never really considered it.

KEITH: It almost seemed like you were trying to guide the people of Colorado to be vaxxed and done.

POLIS: Yeah. I mean, and I'm proud of one of our higher-than-average vaccination rates. I think we're 10th or 11th. But for a bigger state, we're one of the higher ones. And it's a direct correlation, right? We're the, I think, 10th or 11th-highest percentage vaccinated. We're also ninth or 10th-lowest death rates. I mean, and the two are linked, right? The reason we have one of the lowest death rates is because we have one of the highest vaccine rates.

But the truth is you have a much higher level of protection. And to have that credibility as a messenger of that in Colorado, it was important that we didn't get into these things like, you know, mask mandates and other things because we want to be trusted purveyors of real scientific information. And that's why one of the reasons, I think, we were so effective in getting people vaccinated.

KEITH: And, Domenico, you and I have both covered some of the political fallout from pandemic measures, something that has affected Democrats, just look no further than the Virginia governor's race, for instance. It is certainly something that Democrats are concerned about heading into the midterms.

MONTANARO: Well, yeah, I mean, a lot of the places that they're having to contend with, these swing districts, are in suburban places, places where you have parents who are concerned about their kids being back in school, whether they're masked or not, you know. And it's a contentious issue. I don't think that it comes down - parents come down on one side or the other because they're a parent. It's really all through the lens of politics.

And, you know, this is an issue, though, that does affect lots of parents, lots of kids, and it is something that, you know, is going to become an issue in the 2022 midterms. It's something Democrats are bracing for. And, frankly, a lot of Democrats have felt like they didn't have a real strong message because they felt like the federal messaging was kind of off.

KEITH: What's interesting here is that as the coronavirus fades, hopefully, into the background, as policy focuses on being prepared but not having it sort of overwhelm our lives anymore, now there are other issues that Democrats have to worry about heading into the midterms that Americans are broadly concerned about. And that includes the price of gasoline and other inflation. These are now top-of-mind issues, right, Domenico?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I was going to say, in a word, it's prices, that things are going up. They cost more. That includes gas. That includes your groceries. Inflation's at a 40-year high.

KEITH: Housing in Colorado in particular. Well, housing all over the place, but it's a big deal in that state.

MONTANARO: Yeah, there's all kinds of, you know, places where we're seeing that. And we've seen it in our surveys where we've asked people what they think President Biden's top priority needs to be. And overwhelmingly, you know, now inflation has moved to the top. Now, we could look at COVID as that recedes. I think the White House has to hope that inflation also recedes, that people go out, the economy - they're spending more money and that prices wind up coming down, you know, as companies are, you know, start to regain some of their - recoup some of their profits over the last couple of years.

KEITH: So we mentioned at the top that Polis is seemingly facing a relatively easy race this November, which can't be said for all Democrats. What do you think's going on here?

MONTANARO: Well, part of that pivot has to be what he saw was happening with the backlash from conservatives against, you know, some of these COVID policies in other places and federally. Remember, midterm elections, you know, wind up drawing a pretty activist base, activist election, and I think he didn't want to poke the hive, you know.

And that's why we're seeing his approval ratings, for example, outpace President Biden's approval ratings. He's at 57%, according to a poll that was out late last year. President Biden was at 47%. And that included people who only had a 49% favorability rating of Polis. So I think you had a lot of conservatives and Republicans maybe saying, fine, I don't really like the guy all that much, but I approve of how he's dealt with the COVID crisis.

CHANG: That was NPR's Tamara Keith and Domenico Montanaro. You can hear more of their conversation on NPR's Politics Podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.